Somewhere in Ohio

Obscenely red skies over the Middle West this evening. The real heroes of this blessed land are the short-order cooks at Chinese takeout joints who manipulate fire, oil, and steel like gods. It’s the first of October, and I give praise for the arrival of proper autumn at last. Deeper nights. Sharper weather. There’s room in the air to think.

Saw Barbarian at the multiplex, and it’s a brilliantly effective horror movie. At one point, I shrieked like a child. More importantly, it was fun, succeeding because we’ve become so blunted by the deadening rhythm of thrillers that its refusal to play along keeps us edgy. Barbarian understands exactly what kind of movie it is, preferring the absurd over the ponderous or, god forbid, exploring themes. And it delivers one of the funniest approaches to haunted real estate I’ve seen.

Currently reading The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe, which recasts the Middle Ages as a knotty, polyglot time with all kinds of gods—and points towards better possible futures.

Gas – Oktember

Oktember | Mille Plateaux, 1999 | Bandcamp
Somewhere in New Orleans, 2011

A jumbotron flashed above an overpass, and I held my breath. Lately there’s been a shiver in my nerves whenever I see an illuminated screen, a reflexive bracing for scenes from another disaster, the latest inhuman act. Someone could tell me everyone in Nebraska disappeared last night, and I would believe it. I’ve become accustomed to the suspension of disbelief. But it was just the weather report. Dust, more dust, and probably smoke.

For years, I inhaled the news until I heard myself screaming. Then I began to understand the relief she had found in radio static, those flecks and dots like listening to an abstract painting. Driving to the crackle of an untuned station, I found peace in noise without meaning, a hum that boxed in my mind and prevented it from wandering too far. I jotted down the stations that played my favorite static, noting them as plush or brittle, warm or cool, a codex for the textures that matched my mood.

Vainqueur – Antistatic

Elevations | Chain Reaction, 1997 | More

This is the thirteenth episode of Interstate Scenes, a fictional collection of homeless paragraphs, remixed and upcycled bits from the past, and bloopers from the stories I’m writing.

Mojave Desert, 2019

Neon fritz and grumbling ice machines, a laugh track bleeding through the walls while the static of highway traffic fills the dark. 

Bohren & Der Club of Gore – Gore Motel

Gore Motel | Epistrophy, 1994 | More
Comments Off on Night Station 01

I have zero interest in football, which can make it challenging to move through American life. I dread getting cornered in an elevator or stuck in line with some chipper guy asking if I saw the game. Saying no, I don’t follow football feels like a failing, a confession, and a pretension that leaves me doubting my manhood. So a novel about middle-aged men who gather each year to reenact a violent NFL moment from 1985 was not high on my reading list.

But Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special relies upon football only as a stalking horse to deliver a meticulously detailed guide through the interior muck of failure, confession, and pretension. The action unfolds in hotel rooms and hallways, where the hum of the ice machine veers from reassuring to sinister. The story is delivered in a deadpan, ethnographic tone that flirts with the surreal: “The bright, enormous clock bathed the entire lobby in time.” Continental breakfasts and service drives become totems of American desire and pilgrimage, our last shared rituals and churches. A man admires the plastic trash along a highway embankment: “By night it looked ceremonial, festive, as if it had once stood for something holy but now just stood prettily for itself.”

Line for line, this book has some of the best writing I’ve read in years, dignified and comic without nudging you in the ribs, and now I’m harassing everyone I know to read it. This sentence captures its overall spirit: “Chad had ceased being a discrete unit of biological meaning. It felt okay.”

(Matt Bell’s newsletter encouraged me to read it, and here’s a nice interview with Bachelder.)

Somewhere in Arizona, 2021

Service plazas are thrilling architecture, modern works of art where I can eat slick food next to twelve lanes of humming traffic, lording over a glittering river of steel and glass. Last night, I sat at a polycarbonate table gnawing at a cold cheeseburger, watching my fellow travelers stalk the food court, hunting and gathering, snapping and mumbling while they bumped into chairs, walls, and one another, their faces tanned blue by the screens in their palms.

Munching a cold french fry, I counted the logos flying around my head. Because sometimes it makes me feel rather grand, all these entities competing for my attention: the billboards and commercials, the avatars and pop-ups and shriekers. Please look at me, they cry. Pay attention to me.

A girl asked her mother whether the Bible was fiction or non-fiction. A man in flip-flops yelled “shoot me an email” six times to nobody in particular while he pumped quarters into a candy machine. Five elderly women solemnly examined the offerings at Panda Express, their white hair like a system of low-flying clouds. A monk in a saffron robe paced in front of a cash register, waiting for his tacos. The fluorescent lights granted no shadows or gradation, no mercy. 

A voice ricocheted from the massage chairs: “Don’t push me!” The air felt too tight, stretched thin by the transactional beep and churn, the horror of strangers. My heart began beating in my jaw, my teeth grinding like the time I accidentally gunned the engine while in neutral: the smoke and overheated gears, something close to breaking.

The Psychic Stewardess – Night Service

Spiritual Foundation | Strange Life Records, 2010 | Bandcamp

This is the twelfth episode of Interstate Scenes, a fictional collection of homeless paragraphs, remixed and upcycled bits from the past, and bloopers from the stories I’m writing.

It wasn’t until midway through revising the novel I’m writing that I realized I was writing a ghost story. It’s an interesting moment when you give up control of something you’re making and instead become its servant, helping it become what it needs to become. The trick, I think, is to stay out of its way.

I spent the summer reading some touchstones of horror: Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, Koji Suzuki’s The Ring, Michel Faber’s Under the Skin, Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child, and most recently, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

Hill House, famously “not sane,” bothers the soul because Jackson describes the perception of horror, not the horror itself:

[The house] had an unbelievably faulty design which left it chillingly wrong in all its dimensions, so that the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction a fraction less than the barest possible tolerable length.

We’re left to imagine what these walls might look like. Later, a woman turns and sees something, then screams to her companion, “Don’t look back—don’t look—run!” Another character struggles with her bedroom door but is “unable to open it against the volume of noise outside.” The fear is vivid; the causes remain unknown.

Early in the story, a professor ruminates about our need for explanations. “People are always so anxious to get things out into the open,” he says, “where they can put a name to them, even a meaningless name, so long as it has something of a scientific ring.” Jackson trusts that our imaginations are far more wicked than anything she might describe, and she creates the conditions for these imaginings to fester into something genuinely horrifying because they cannot be named.

Ghost-wise, I’m not sure where to go after Jackson. Any recommendations for novels that deal with hauntings would be much appreciated.

Ectomorph – The Haunting

Abstraction | Interdimensional Transmissions, 1997 | More
Somewhere in Oklahoma, 2010

Tinnitus occurs for many reasons, most of them vague. Exposure to loud noise or stress. A kink in the nerves. It’s a purely internal phenomenon, and it’s important to distinguish between the mental and the material. It could be a matter of life and death. Or worse. Like the story about the man whose tinnitus became so loud, he punctured his eardrums with an ice pick, preferring deafness to the incessant ringing. After the job was done, he held the bloodied pick before a mirror and began to scream. Not from the pain. No, he screamed because the ringing continued. Tinnitus is just another trick of the brain, a glitch that compensates for a lost frequency by reproducing it in the mind.

So I turn up the radio to drown the hum in my ears. This is the only medicine that works: the gray noise of modern living, the wash of air-conditioners, static, and highway traffic. Strange how the noise in my head can only be soothed by more noise. Maybe this makes sense in a world of ever-increasing volume, all of us chatterers and screamers seeking to mute the unpleasant sounds in our heads, some hollow ringing of the soul.

Now sight is merging with sound: everyone is snapping pictures or hunched over tiny screens, their faces bathed in pale blue light as if talking with ghosts. My brains scrape against a story about a god who could no longer tolerate the constant babble of humans that swarmed the earth, until one night, unable to sleep, this god unleashed a terrible flood. This might be an ancient myth. Or maybe I made it up.

thisquietarmy – Altar of Drone II

Altar of Drone | 2014 | Bandcamp

This is the eleventh episode of Interstate Scenes, a fictional collection of homeless paragraphs, remixed and upcycled bits from the past, and bloopers from the stories I’m writing.

Berenice Abbot, Magnetic Field, 1958

I’ve been stuck on the last 20% of a story I’m writing about a haunted frequency, so I went to the museum to shake some ideas loose. When the student is ready, the teacher appears: I’m learning to trust this ancient axiom when it comes to finding inspiration. 

As I wandered the Columbus Museum of Art, my brain was gunked up with doubt and bad adjectives. Then I ran into Berenice Abbott’s portrait of a magnetic field. Its cosmic pattern reminded me of fireworks beneath the eyelids and my childhood conception of God, which came from the opening scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life. My thoughts turned to the moment dots become a recognizable pattern, the phenomena of stray bursts of electricity in our heads cohering into shapes, ideas, and loops that can seduce or horrify. And I was unstuck. For a few hours, anyway.

Berenice Abbott, Circular Wave Systems (1958-61); Behavior of Waves (1962)

Known for her dynamic portraits of New York City, Abbott also pulled signals from the air and made them visible. Between 1958 and 1962, she documented magnetic fields and captured the interplay between prisms, water, and beams of light. She photographed wave patterns crashing into a piece of glass. “The artist through history has been the spokesman and conservator of human and spiritual energies and ideas,” Abbott wrote in 1939. “Today science needs its voice.”

Radius – Transversewaves

Obsolete Machines | Echospace, 1995-2016 | Bandcamp

Ohio. The sun goes down at 8:05 tonight, there’s a waxing crescent moon, and the blessed cool edge of autumn is in the air. Today I learned that Cheez-Its were invented in Ohio. There’s magic here. There’s also magic in a fresh notebook.

The first thing I do with a new notebook is write something stupid and messy on the first page. This helps cure any notion that it might be precious. For years I believed the right notebook would solve all my problems. I explored blank pages, dots, and grids. I fooled with modular systems. I invested in artisanal, shade-grown leather journals. In the end, I’ve settled on these Muji notebooks. They’re five bucks a pop, the pages are nicely coated, and they lie flat, which seems to aid my left-handedness. And they can take a beating. They heroically suffer rain and sploshed coffee. They get jammed in my back pocket, I fall asleep on them, and sometimes I use them to kill bugs. Pen-wise, I remain committed to black 0.4mm Zebra Sarasa pens.

I’ve been relying more on these tools lately, drafting my stories with pen and paper before punching them into a machine. I think differently when I’m not locked into a staring contest with a screen. Maybe because my writing doesn’t look like the final product yet, I’m more willing to make mistakes.

(Inspired by Warren Ellis’s recent note about notebooks.)

Windy & Carl – The Smell of Old Books

We Will Always Be | Kranky, 2012 | Bandcamp

Maybe I was primed for horror because I woke before dawn on a Sunday morning and could not find my way back to sleep. I hate the sunrise. It brings to mind all-nighters and benders from my past, the grit and clench of bad drugs and insomnia. When I think about all those blissed-out swamis, granola-eaters, and alpha go-getters who believe dawn is the most beautiful part of the day, I wonder if something is wrong with me. So as the sky turned an uneasy pink, I picked up Doris Lessing‘s The Fifth Child and discovered a story that digs into the muck of living beyond the bounds of time, consensus, and normalcy.

The novel’s crisis is simple; its implications are not. A young couple is determined to fill their home with children and find “happiness, in the old style.” But their fifth child frightens them. I’ll leave it at that. Read it. It’s a fast 125 pages, and we should have more novellas. There are no chapters or sections, which makes the story feel especially relentless.

Lessing’s writing is lean and frighteningly precise, fusing the sweep of a fable with a cinematographer’s mastery of space. She carries us through the family’s home across decades, roving through rooms we come to know well. And without my realizing it, she left me stranded in a moral grey zone where I found myself rooting for a terrible outcome; I had become part of a horror that telescopes from the personal to the social to the existential. We remain in the house until the mother takes a ghastly trip that feels like a permanent stain on some part of myself I cannot name. At that moment, I was incredibly grateful the morning sun was shining through my window.

(Thank you, David Leo Rice, for the recommendation.)

Somewhere in Imperial County, California, 2014

The years disappeared while I drove, my life red-shifting as catastrophes streaked across my windshield and cars zipped past me, their drivers clutching tiny screens flashing the latest news. Strange how we’ve become so hellbent on speed rather than slowing down. Maybe it’s a knee-jerk defense against decay, the senselessness of entropy. They say evolution occurs most rapidly in body parts that attract lovers and frighten rivals, but what’s the reason for the grey in my hair or the creases across my forehead?

Chattanooga. Kansas City. Los Angeles. I wanted to admire the flash of plastic and neon, the synthetic gloss of interstate life. Instead, I found myself squinting into the sprawl, thinking of a time when this was a wilderness of women and men raising feeble lamps against the darkness and calling out to God.

Wichita. Newark. Seattle. It felt like one big meeting with the same metal chairs, the same fleshy carpet, and the same voices fumbling for a grammar to describe the kinks in the soul. A halo is only six inches from being a noose. I folded myself into the back of church basements and joined a shambling collection of retail workers, grandmothers, nightwalkers, software developers, mystics, teenagers, blackjack dealers, and cops who spoke in aphorisms and numbers. They smiled politely and told me I must humble myself if I hoped to find anything resembling peace.

Landing – Shifts

Complekt | These Are Not Records, 2016 | Bandcamp

This is the tenth episode of Interstate Scenes, a fictional collection of homeless paragraphs, remixed and upcycled bits from the past, and bloopers from the stories I’m writing.

AI-generated scenes from the story I’m writing.

Clear skies in the Middle West. The sun goes down at 8:25pm, and the moon is in its last quarter. This morning I fed a robot a few sentences from the novel I’m writing, and it generated some startlingly accurate pictures. It also generated a complex headrush of emotions.

On a visceral level, it was unsettling to suddenly glimpse a fictional world I’d spent years imagining—and struggling to build with words. This uneasiness mingled with an undeniable wow factor, and I briefly imagined using this technology to create stunning mood boards and bleeding-edge pitch decks. But most of all, I felt a little dirty, as if sneaking a peek at someone else’s private dream.

There are knotty ethical issues to untangle, such as Charlie Warzel‘s observation that these systems are “trained on the creative work of countless artists, and so there’s a legitimate argument to be made that it is essentially laundering human creativity in some way for a commercial product.” And while this doesn’t sound much different from the advertising industry since the beginning of time, it’s another reminder that we’ll only have a worthwhile internet once we’re paid for our data.

But I’m more interested in how quickly I grew bored with this technology. I spent ten minutes conjuring fanciful scenes that my mind’s eye thought it would never see. Then I drifted back to editing my manuscript and organizing my mp3 collection. If you had told me twenty years ago that I could instantly illustrate anything that popped into my head, I would have burst with excitement at such a far-out future. Now that it’s here, I meet it with a shrug. I don’t know if this speaks more to my age, my character, or the world we’ve created.

Meanwhile, China is firing rods into the sky to make it rain.

Arpanet – Wireframe Images

Wireless Internet | Record Makers, 2002 | Bandcamp